Outlaw Jesse James:Biography
Outlaw Jesse James robbed and killed for a living and yet, remains one of the most notorious men in history. Read his biography here.
Jesse Woodson James was born on a farm in Kearney, Missouri on September 5, 1847 to the Reverend Robert James, a Baptist minister, and his wife, Zerelda Elizabeth Cole. Jesse's father was a well known figure around town, and had helped to found William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo. shortly before his birth. Young Jesse was the third child born to the James'. Alexander was five years older than Jesse, and Robert James, Jr. died thirty three days after birth in 1945. When Jesse was two, he was joined by a sister, Susan Lavenia. This birth would complete the James family.
As Jesse turned three, he learned of his father's death. Reverend James had long since abandoned the family in search of riches in the gold mining industry. Rev. Robert James died August 18, 1850 of food poisoning.
Jesse's childhood was difficult by all accounts. He never knew much of his father and his bond with his stepfather, , Benjamin Simms, was broken when Simms was killed in a freakish horse accident shortly after marrying Jesse's mother. Zerelda Elizabeth would take her third husband in 1855, marrying Dr. Reuben Samuel. By the age of eight, Jesse had had three father figures.
As he turned fifteen, Jesse joined Quantrill's Raiders, a group of pro-Confederate guerillas. It is said that young Jesse James learned a lot about guerrilla activities during the U.S. Civil War, fighting and sabotaging the Union army in the cause of the Confederacy. Disillusioned by the outcome of the war, Jesse formed his own gang, stating that he was continuing the battle of the Confederacy. Brother, Frank and Jesse James and cousin, Cole Younger began a massive crime spree in 1866 that would last fifteen years and make Jesse and Frank James household names.
Jesse's career as an outlaw began at the age of nineteen. He, along with his brother and cousin, had made plans to rob a bank. On February 13, 1866, the Jesse James Gang successfully robbed the Clay County Savings Bank in Liberty, MO., walking away with a startling $72,000. A seventeen year old boy, George Clifford Wymore, is killed in the process. No bank robbery had ever netted such a fee, and the public went wild.
For the next eight years, the Jesse James Gang would rob banks across the U.S., killing anyone who got in their way. Their takes were considerably smaller than their first heist, which would be their largest take in their fifteen year history. The James Gang had become so well known and feared that they were eventually blamed for robberies they did not commit. On October 30, 1866, Mitchell and Company banking firm of Lexington, MO. was robbed and Jesse and Frank were credited, even though they were not in the state. Jesse was quick to correct the story, wanting to always give credit where credit was due.
The legend of Jesse James began to come to light and onto the printed page in 1866, when John Newman Edward began writing small articles and stories of the James Gang, glorifying their escapades. Soon, Jesse was known as a hero, rather than an outlaw.
After an 1868 robbery of the Southern Deposit Bank in Russellville, Kentucky, which netted $14,000, the James Gang took a break from their activities and found respite in the Nashville area. Within two years they were at it again however, with a $700 robbery in Missouri, during which a cashier was killed. This robbery would put the James boys on the Most Wanted list and add murder to their long list of felonies.
After four more robberies, including the holdup of the Kansas City Fair, the James Gang grew tired and decided to try something new. Train robberies. On January 15, 1874, James and company hold up their first stagecoach, walking away with thousands of dollars of cash and jewels in Hot Springs, Arkansas and a new plan. From now on, they would rob the rails.
That same year, Jesse courted and married Zee Mimms. His brother, Frank, would take a bride of his own the following year. Neither man would ever settle down and both wives often followed their career criminal husbands from town to town.
With law officials always hot on their heels, the Jesse James Gang moved around quickly. They would rob a bank or stagecoach one day and be several states away the next. On January 26, 1875, Jesse and Frank traveled home to visit their mother. Shortly after arriving, someone tossed a smoke bomb into the house, hoping to smoke the men out. Thinking it was a loose stick from the fire, Jesse's step-father tossed it into the fire, where it exploded, killing him instantly and seriously wounding their mother. Now grief stricken, Jesse and Frank would head back out on the road with their wives. Jesse and Zee would give birth to a son later that year, naming him Jesse James, Jr.
After years of robbing and looting, the public still deeming the James brothers "modern day Robin Hoods," Jesse's life would come to an end April 3, 1882. As Jesse turns his back to straighten a picture, he is shot and killed instantly by Bob Ford in his own home. The public cries foul, declaring that a good man has been killed by a coward, who didn't even have the decency to look him in the eye. Bob Ford was shunned by all of society. And so began the Legend of Jesse James.